The Holiday Dilemma

At some point in his or her career, the obsessed climber eventually stumbles upon a question of personal values. The answer has far-reaching implications and is never easy to decide, though we are likely to wrestle with it as long as we climb.

When I was a 19-year-old college sophomore, my 24-year-old cousin and I planned a trip to Utah’s Castle Valley for fall break. A day before we left on our three-day weekend, our grandma informed us that she was hosting a big family dinner. The meal was Saturday night and she expected us to be there. Hmmm. Spend three days knocking off as many desert towers as possible, or stick around town for one dinner at Grandma’s?

It ended up being among the most memorable trips of my life. Ryan was a far superior climber to me then, having been a protégé of the great Colorado trad master Roger Briggs, so I learned a lot and pushed my limits. I stood atop the twisted pinnacle of Ancient Art in the Fisher Towers, the tiny nipple-point of Lighthouse Tower above River Road, and climbed Castleton twice in one day via the North Face and a quick simul-climb of the North Chimney in fading light. On the simul climb, which was my first, I was leading and had to deal with explosive diarrhea halfway up. The gurgles started in the 5.9 offwidth and the situation was desperate by the time I reached a ledge.

“Ryan – I have to poop!” I shouted down. “What should I do?”
“Do you have to?”
“Uh … go deep inside the chimney if you can.”

Ryan got to a stance and waited. I found a laundry chute of sorts in the back of the huge chimney – a hole where the sun doesn’t shine. It was a thank-God hole. I rigged an anchor, fast as ever, and tied in with webbing around my chest so I could drop my harness… I placed a rock over the hole after it was done and climbed to the top.

“Jeez, that smells,” Ryan said as he followed.

Thankfully the smell was the only evidence of my… passage. Then I learned another nifty trick when we rescued someone else’s stuck rope on the rappels. The rope had twisted over itself and wedged in a thin crack. Though the tangled mess was at our feet, we couldn’t get the slick new rope to budge. A loop formed by the single stuck twist hung from the bottom of the crack, and Ryan got an idea. He clipped a sling to the loop, stepped into the sling and bounced on it – voila! We returned the booty and were rewarded with fine homemade beer at camp.

Those are a lot of memories for a single weekend 11 years ago, but another one haunts me as well: I never saw my grandma alive again. No one knew it at the time, but she was quickly succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease. Was it worth it? Yes, I suppose. That weekend probably ended up a bigger life experience than if I had gone to the dinner; the kind of experience that makes me think twice whenever I leave loved ones behind to grope rocks. Sometimes I wonder, do I love climbing more than anything or anyone else?

My mom was deeply hurt when I opted for a Red Rocks trip with friends this last Thanksgiving. Part of me says I need to live my own life and not constrain myself to the myriad expectations of others. Another part of me says I might be missing the more important and rewarding aspects of life when I choose to get a pump on instead of spending time with loved ones.

The bottom line is that I’m not happy when I’m not able to feel the Earth at my fingertips and air under my heels. I’ve also realized that the people I share the rocks with are a big part of what I love most about climbing. Ryan and I have shared a deeper bond since our desert blitz. If I had been with someone else, I might not have that, the weekend might have been less memorable, and Grandma’s memory more tragic.

Now Ryan has a little boy and another one on the way, so he doesn’t climb much these days. Yet we still manage to fiddle adventures into our schedule like RPs in a granite seam: they might be few and far between, but each one counts for a lot. When I look back on all the memories, I see a shared lifetime strung together.

So where is the balance between relationships and personal desire? Like everything with climbing, it’s a judgment call, and you can lose a lot when you make a poor choice.

Derek Franz is 30 years old and lives in Carbondale, Colorado. He’s been climbing since age 11. This is his first contribution to and this regular column will appear the first Monday of every month.

Locals Corner

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